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Inclusion missionary: Varsha Hooja

EducationWorld January 11 | EducationWorld People

Fresh from its triumph in persuading the Union HRD ministry to amend the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 (aka RTE Act) to entitle the country’s estimated 10 million children with disabilities to free and compulsory inclusive education, and for them to be included in the definition of “poor neighbourhood children” whom private schools are obliged to admit into pre-schools or class I to the extent of 25 percent of class strength, ADAPT (Abled-Disabled People All Together) — a Mumbai-based NGO (formerly the Spastics Society of India (estb. 1972) — is all set to introduce its tried and tested inclusive curriculum in four-five primary schools in Mumbai. Simultaneously ADAPT has finalised a plan to transform the spacious two-storied premises of the National Resource Centre for Inclusion (NRCI) in Bandra — hitherto a state-of-the-art research centre for inclusive education — into a K-V primary school for 250 children which will gradually expand into a fully-fledged K-12 inclusive school.

“Simply stated, inclusive education is barriers-free and includes all children — the girl child, socio-economically disadvantaged children, and children with learning or physical disabilities,” says Varsha Hooja, managing trustee of ADAPT. A psychology graduate of Ranchi University, Hooja acquired a Masters certification in education for the physically handicapped from the Spastics Society in 1982 and thereafter signed up with SSI in 1983. Founded by inclusive education pioneer Dr Mithu Alur, ADAPT runs three inclusive schools (pre-school-class X, affiliated with the National Institute of Open Schooling and the SSC Board) in Bandra, Colaba and Dharavi as also eight anganwadis (pre-schools) in Dharavi, with an aggregate enrolment of 1,000-plus students with and without disabilities.

Apart from heading ADAPT’s teacher training department, Hooja is also general secretary of the All India Regional Alliance for Inclusive Education (AIRA, estb.2002). “An alliance of 14 NGOs, AIRA is currently demanding that education for children with disabilities should fall within the purview of the Union HRD ministry rather than the ministry of social justice — whose objective is to rehabilitate challenged children thereby institutionalising segregation,” she says.

An ardent champion of inclusive education, Hooja believes it’s an easily attainable goal. “ADAPT’s joint research project with UNICEF titled Inclusive Education Practice in Early Childhood in Mumbai, India (1999- 2001) is testimony to this. We trained 12 women residing in Dharavi, reportedly Asia’s largest slum, to work as Anganwadi multi-purpose workers (AMWs) in 21 pre-schools, with 600 children in the age group three-five years, of whom 2-4 percent had some form of learning disability. At the end of the project, all children were admitted by mainstream schools. The moral of the study is that if inclusion can happen in Indian slum pre-schools with abysmal teaching-learning facilities, it can happen anywhere,” says Hooja.

To demonstrate that inclusive education is best practiced from early childhood, ADAPT is planning to partner with mainstream schools in Mumbai to promote inclusive pre-schools so that children with disabilities are mainstreamed ab initio. “While we do have policies that favour inclusive education as in the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (elementary education for all) programme, they are practiced more in the breach. Therefore, sensitisation of officials, teacher training, creating awareness of the importance of inclusion, all needs to be undertaken simultaneously. All this will take time, but the time to preach and practice inclusive education right from the pre-school years is right now,” says Hooja.

Yes, we can!

Swati Roy (Mumbai)

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